10 Great Contemporary Works of Political Art

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Some artists aren’t moved by the beauty around them, their patrons’ sponsorship, or some deep need for catharsis. Some artists operate on a different wavelength, channeling the injustices, imbalances, and harsh realities of their daily lives or the lives of those in need to create their art. That’s not to say these artists are entirely motivated by altruism. Suppose they get self-satisfaction from sticking it to the man, from pointing to the bad guys with a big giant neon sign, from being badasses themselves. Nonetheless, kudos. In the wake of the freshly concluded presidential debates, here are a few recent art projects made with a political message in mind. From the Yes Men to Ai Weiwei to the Guerrilla Girls — these artists employ more tools than one can pick up at the neighborhood art store. Check out their culture-jamming, intervention-throwing, order-disrupting, and trouble-making ways, and see if it inspires you to stand for something.

Joshua Allen Harris’ Inflatable Polar Bears

Fighting apathy with beauty, urban intervention artist Joshua Allen Harris constructed a captivating, DIY connection between our metropolitan landscape and the fates of polar bears. These sculptures appear almost alive. As a train passes beneath the NYC subway grates, a series of bags inflate in the gust, pumping themselves full to reveal a white, rippling bear, sometimes two, sometimes a mother and a cub. As the train passes, they slump deathlike, crumpling to the ground only to be revived with another passing train. “Ride, Don’t Drive,” this PSA for the Environmental Defense Fund calls out at the end of this clip. The metaphor couldn’t be simpler.

The Yes Men’s Dow Chemical Prank

The Yes Men are truly pioneers of their field, which is somewhere that renegade political activism, conceptual intervention performance art, and ballsy pranking all overlap. Throughout the years, they’ve been known for psych-outs of epic, international proportions — they’ve successfully crashed an oil tycoon convention in Canada, impersonated ExxonMobil members and suggested that dead people be turned into fossil fuel, and spoofed Shell for being very excited to drill in the Arctic. Now they’re hoping to get funding for The Yes Men Are Revolting, the third in a trilogy of documentaries about their work, via Kickstarter.

Voina’s Priest-cop Cop-priest

Before Pussy Riot’s famous protest and unjust imprisonment brought to light Russia’s corrupt, incestuous relationship of church and state, Pussy Riot’s older cousin, radical art troupe Voina staged a simple Cop in a Priest’s Cassock intervention that would lampoon “the impunity enjoyed by priests and cops in today’s Russia.” Dressed in a cop uniform/Orthodox priest’s cassock, donning a giant shiny cross and a police cap, the “Mentopop” and his posse “robbed” a high-class supermarket in Moscow, carrying out five bags of “delicatessen and elite alcohol,” brazen like a boss. Known for their highly theatrical stunts and treatises, Voina’s motivation isn’t always 100% clear, but this particular image is razor sharp. Meet the hybrid face of corruption!

Packard Jennings’s Lil Anarchist

Photo courtesy of CClark Gallery

Packard Jennings makes his political leanings clear: He’s against American fundamentalism and mega-corporations. He’s got a bit of a Fight Club touch to his artistic technique. He once gave out flyers with authentic-looking mock instructions for an office revolt. When staying in hotels, he’d slap stickers on the Bibles that read, “This material was written by normal men almost two thousand years ago and should be approached with an open mind and critically considered.” One of the works that best combines his mischievous sense of humor and dedication to disrupting the order of things was the Anarchist Action Figure, 2008. The boxed, cast plastic toy was equipped with a molotov cocktail and dense manifesto, stocked secretly in the shelves of Target. Score!

Guerrilla Girls’ Marriage Equality Billboards

The anonymous, masked feminist Guerrilla Girls — think ape masks, not balaclavas — have been active since 1985, when they formed to challenge MoMA’s International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture featuring 169 artists — only 17 of which were women. Some things have changed since the days they roamed various museums and public art institutions with “weenie count” cards, pointing out the hypocrisy of the naked women as muses to women artists ratio of their collections. Some, sadly, have not. Recently, the Guerrilla Girls took direct action against a proposed amendment in Minnesota which would institute a ban on same-sex marriage into the state’s constitution, using this infamous clip of Michele Bachman to create this catchy billboard.

David Černý’s Pink Soviet Tank

Photo credit: EPA/MATEJ DIVIZNA

In 1991, the notorious Czech bad boy sculptor David Černý vandalized the public “monument” Soviet Tank No. 23. The “monument” tank had been plopped in Prague in 1945 by the Soviets after liberating Czechoslovakia from the Nazis, but since the Soviet-led invasion, for decades, it had meant something entirely different, something tyrannical. Černý painted it a bright, waxy pink and topped it with a giant, poking finger, rendering the symbol of military oppression completely absurd and comically phallic. A year ago, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia, the pink thing was triumphantly sailed down Prague’s Vltala River. Prague still loves it.

Ai Weiwei Backpacks

Photo credit: Newscom

Of all the trouble and wrath rained upon artist Ai Weiwei by the Chinese government goons, even since being hospitalized after being beaten by the police, beaten again, and constantly trailed… he still couldn’t be stopped. Endlessly campaigning to bring justice to the victims of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan that crushed so many children in the shoddily constructed “tofu skin” schools, Ai Weiwei created the installation Remembering at the House of Art in Munich, in 2009. It was made from 9,000 children’s backpacks to commemorate the victims. It spelled, “She lived happily for seven years in this world,” and it was devastating.

Wafaa Bilal’s Invisible Casualties Tattoo

Iraqi-born American artist Wafaa Bilal is known for his controversial projects, but this one was particularly potent. For And Counting… Bilal underwent a 24-hour live performance/tattoo session — one red dot for each of the 5,000 dead American soldiers and one green UV ink dot for each to the 100,000 Iraqi casualties, only visible under black light — as the names of the dead were being read. The combination of political subtext of censorship and very literal, permanent “inscription” make this a powerful project, and not for the squeamish.

Jo Seub’s Classic Scenes of Corruption

Like an angrier, funnier Cindy Sherman, artist Jo Seub re-stages the realities of living in South Korea through meticulously set-up photographs, starring himself and what appears to be a repeating crew of friends. They’re very reminiscent of classic paintings, but they reflect on police violence, torture, and various contemporary, cultural maladies of his country. Without being too overbearing as an homage, the Who Wants to Live Forever series is accessible, with a tinge of dark humor. It’s a dramatic, sweeping alternative to document that which cannot be documented. Ace.

The West Bank Wall’s Street Art Takeover

Photo credit: Against the Wall

Street artists BLU, Ron English, Banksy, FAILE, and others headed to the Middle East in 2010 to take part in a project documented in Against the Wall: The Art of Resistance in Palestine . The book’s release coincided with the anniversary of the International Court of Justice’s advisory on the Israel-built wall in the West Bank that cuts off, isolates, and encircles Palestinian communities. Combined with local graffiti, the project yielded straight-forward, high-profile imagery for peace in a tumultuous region that needs it desperately. Well, at least there’s this.